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Archive for the ‘global warming’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The United States is on the verge of a solar boom that could provide 4.3 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

There’s just a 12-figure catch: Investors need to put $100 billion into the solar industry to keep the generation of solar electricity growing by 42 percent a year for the next decade to expand capacity from the current 1.4 gigawatts to 44 gigawatts.

“Policy measures such as tax credits, capital expenditure grants, generation incentives and renewable electricity credits will remain a key driver of solar uptake in the U.S. for at least the next three years,” according to the report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. “The current drop in solar costs is taking place just as such policies are being implemented by the federal and various state governments, which is expected to lead to rapid growth in commercial, utility and residential solar power.”

Over the past two years, solar module prices have plunged by 50 percent as low-cost Chinese manufacturers expanded production and entered the U.S. market.

“Policy, rather than sunshine, will remain the U.S.’s greatest solar resource for the next few years,” Milo Sjardin, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s head of U.S. research, said in a statement. “By the middle of this decade, however, the U.S. retail solar market will be driven by fundamental, unsubsidized competition, which should transform the U.S. into one of the world’s most dynamic solar markets.”

Exhibit A for such a phenomenon is Germany. With about as much sunshine as Maine, the European nation became the world’s solar stronghold through policies that rewarded homeowners, businesses, and farmers for generating their own electricity.

Such policies are needed in the U.S., according to the report, given that solar electricity remains four times as expensive to generate than coal-fired power.

Of course, the failure of Congress to pass national climate change legislation and the current attempt to kill California’s global warming law shows that progress on green energy issues is not guaranteed in the U.S. And Congress’ habit of offering short-lived tax incentives for renewable energy and then dithering about extending them when they expire has played havoc with the industry and investors.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts photovoltaic panels will account for 30 gigawatts of the 44 gigawatts of solar electricity generation by 2020, with 14 gigawatts coming from solar thermal power plants. Solar thermal farms deploy huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

That might be a conservative estimate, if the California and federal officials’ rush to green light big solar projects in recent weeks is any indication. On Monday, for instance, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a 1,000-megawatt solar thermal power plant to be built in the Southern California desert.

By year’s end, nearly four gigawatts of solar thermal projects are expected to be licensed. Just 10 gigawatts to go until 2020.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about the continuing legal battle over placing the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling critter, on state and federal endangered species lists due to climate change threats to the animal’s survival:

In an article in Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about an environmental law firm that persuaded thousands of San Francisco commuters to use their smartphones’ Foursquare application to “check in” at its advertisements in subway stations and raise money to save the American pika, a critter that may be threatened by climate change.

The nonprofit law firm, Earthjustice, scored a victory this week when a San Francisco judge ordered the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider a decision to deny state endangered species protection to the pika.

A relative of the rabbit, the pika lives on the rocky slopes of alpine ranges in California and throughout the West. Even small increases in temperature prove fatal to the pika, which does not hibernate and maintains a high body heat to survive frigid winters. As temperatures rise in mountainous regions, some scientists have found that pika populations either have vanished at lower elevations or moved to higher ground. The pint-sized mammal is also at risk from melting snow packs, which it relies on to insulate its burrows during long winters.

Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its efforts to have the pika listed as a protected species under state and federal law. After initially finding that a listing may be warranted for the pika, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in February concluded that the species could adapt to climate change.

In California, meanwhile, Earthjustice has been enmeshed in a three-year fight with the state Fish and Game Commission. The commission has twice rejected consideration of the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list the pika as a threatened species.

“The record in this case unequivocally demonstrates that the petition failed to include sufficient, if any, scientific information about population trend, population abundance, range, distribution, and degree and immediacy of threat to the pika throughout all or a significant portion of its range in California,” Cecilia L. Dennis, a California deputy attorney general, wrote in a motion filed Sept. 1 that opposed the environmentalists’ effort to re-open the listing proceedings.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif., argued that the Center for Biological Diversity offered more than ample evidence that a listing might be warranted for the pika, which would lead to a full investigation of the species’ status.

In court filings, Mr. Loarie said that the commission failed to properly consider new scientific evidence that his client presented in 2009 after Judge Peter Busch of the San Francisco Superior Court ordered the commission to reconsider the petition on the ground that it had used the wrong legal standard to reach its decision.

“As the expert agency charged with protecting California’s wildlife, the commission’s role is to evaluate the substance of the scientific evidence that it receives in support of and against a listing petition,” Mr. Loarie wrote in a brief.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In a story in Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about how Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm, ran a successful successful fundraising campaign to help the climate change-endangered American pika by using Foursquare and location-based advertising:

SAN FRANCISCO

IN a city passionate about the environment and technology, commuters are using their smartphones to check in at a popular social networking service to help keep a critter threatened by climate change from checking out.

“What does it take to help save the endangered pika? About 20 seconds,” read ads from Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, that line San Francisco transit stations and feature the cute rabbitlike American pika in its Sierra Nevada mountain redoubt. “Check in now at Foursquare at ‘Earthjustice ad.’ Every time you check in, an Earthjustice donor will donate $10 to protect endangered species.”

Foursquare, a rapidly growing social network, lets people use their mobile phones to announce their location to friends. When they arrive at a restaurant, bar or another site, they “check in” and can broadcast their whereabouts through other social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The Earthjustice campaign appears to be among the first to let people check in at a physical billboard, a tactic that has proved successful for the firm and could be attractive to other advertisers, according to industry analysts and Foursquare executives.

“Tying in location allows the advertiser to see which particular ads are more successful at prompting responses,” said Noah Elkin, a mobile marketing analyst at eMarketer, a New York research firm. “Plus, checking in allows each person to share what they think is important about the ad campaign. If they post their check-ins to Facebook and Twitter, you’ve reached a much broader audience.”

Earthjustice’s foray in location-based fund-raising began after the group was offered free ad space to run public service announcements at several Bay Area Rapid Transit stations.

“Foursquare was becoming very popular, especially here in San Francisco, and the BP oil spill had happened not too long before, so it was this perfect storm,” said Ray Wan, the marketing manager for Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif. “A lot of the time people are standing around BART checking their phones as they wait for their train, so it was a no-brainer to use Foursquare as way to get them to engage with the ads and support our work.”

Earthjustice persuaded one of its donors in the Bay Area, whom Mr. Wan described as “very progressive” but who wished to remain anonymous, to pledge $50,000 toward the experimental campaign.

Human Ideas, a Minneapolis firm, created the wall-size ad featuring the pika, which many biologists consider the animal most at risk in the continental United States from global warming. Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that is fighting to place the pika on state and federal endangered species lists.

The pint-size mammal lives mostly in mountainous areas in the western United States and Canada, and even a small spike in its body temperature is fatal. As temperatures have risen, pika populations have vanished from lower elevations, while other populations have remained stable. In February, federal officials declined to give endangered species status to the pika.

The ad for the pika is just one of three that Human Ideas has created for Earthjustice. Another ad, squeezed between billboards for banks and insurance companies, shows an offshore oil rig and declares, “Use your cellphone to drill the oil industry.” A third ad pictures Lake Tahoe, admonishing commuters, “Don’t just stand there. Stand there and help keep Tahoe’s water clean.”

“We want donor dollars to go to causes that are meaningful to Californians,” said Mr. Wan. “When you’re standing around in this urban environment, all the ads are for Starbucks or banks, so to see the pika staring at you turns your head.”

Commuters have checked in at the ads more than 5,700 times, meeting Earthjustice’s $50,000 fund-raising goal.

Many of those who use Foursquare automatically post their Earthjustice check-ins on their Twitter and Facebook pages, further spreading the group’s message.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Have the Texas oil companies backing Proposition 23 surrendered in the fundraising battle over the ballot measure that would suspend California’s global warming law?

Since Thursday, the No on 23 forces have raised more than $7.3 million as the Silicon Valley-Hollywood-environmental-industrial complex revved up for the final push before Election Day on Nov. 2.

The Yes campaign’s take since Thursday? $10,000.

The No on 23 campaign now has raised $25.8 million to the Yes effort’s $9.1 million as money from the petrochemical industry backing Prop 23 has all but dried up in recent weeks, according to California Secretary of State records.

The tsunami of cash flooding into the No campaign indicates the breadth of support from California’s establishment for the state’s global warming law, known as AB 32, which requires greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Avatar director James Cameron attracted the most attention with his $1 million donation on Friday. But Gordon Moore, the legendary co-founder of chip giant Intel, also dropped $1 million into the No coffers that day, and so did Pacific Gas & Electric ($250,000), California’s largest utility and a leading proponent of climate change legislation. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also donated $200,000 on Thursday, and an organization of Silicon Valley tech companies contributed $125,000.

On Tuesday, a group of some 66 investors controlling more than $400 billion in assets are scheduled to hold a press conference to announce their opposition to Prop 23.

In the meantime, national environmental groups and non-profits continued to pour cash into the No campaign last week. The National Wildlife Federation contributed $3 million on Friday. ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco non-profit, gave $900,000. New York’s Rockefeller Family Fund kicked in $300,000 on Thursday and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a top No on 23 donor, added $300,000 more Friday.

Environmentalists are also starting to focus on Proposition 26, a little-noticed California ballot measure that would reclassify environmental impact fees as taxes and require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose them rather than a simple majority. Green groups and AB 32 supporters fear Prop 26 could cripple efforts to levy fees to implement the global warming law.

The oil, alcohol, and tobacco companies backing Prop 26 have so far raised $13.6 million while opponents have managed to collect only $2.8 million, according to state campaign records.

Still, a spokesman for the No on 23 told the Los Angeles Times that the No campaign would not redirect its cash to the Prop 26 fight, saying the battle over the global warming law has yet to be won.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed (on right in above photo), didn’t just agree to have solar panels installed on the presidential mansion; he helped put them in. Nasheed scrambled up to the roof this week, screwdriver in hand, and joined the crew from California’s Sungevity, which installed the 11.5-kilowatt photovoltaic array.

(Don’t expect to see Barack Obama in a hard hat any time soon, even though his administration just gave the OK to the solarization of the White House.)

The Maldives, of course, is the poster country for global warming. The Indian Ocean archipelago rests, on average, fewer than five feet above sea level and the nation of some 305,000 people would be rendered uninhabitable by rising waters.

“For the Maldives, climate change is a real challenge,” said Nasheed on a conference call Wednesday. “It’s not a problem in the future, it’s a problem we face every day.”

“We have 16 islands that have serious erosion problems,” he added. “We’ve had to relocate people from one island to another. We also have severe saltwater contamination. We have a serious food security issue.”

Sungevity and Bill McKibben’s 350.org were behind the campaign to put solar on the U.S. White House. The Maldives rooftop installation is part of this Sunday’s 10/10/10 “Global Work Party,” another McKibben initiative to get people to take action against climate change.

Nasheed, 43, has shown himself adept at focusing media attention on the impact of global warming on the world’s low-lying island nations — last October, he and his cabinet donned scuba gear to hold an underwater meeting.

But putting solar panels on the presidential home is not so much a PR stunt as part of the nation’s aggressive efforts to wean itself from the imported oil it relies on to generate electricity.

In January, Nasheed pledged to the United Nations that the Maldives would go carbon neutral by 2020. Making good on his pledge won’t turn back the rising tide, but Nasheed said the Maldives can show other island nations that it is possible to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. “If it can work here in the Maldives it can work anywhere with 300,000 people,” he said. “We’re going to see a very big technology shift. There’s going to be another industrial revolution. If you’re not clever enough to embrace the future, you cannot be a world leader.”

According to an official in the president’s office, the Maldives total electricity demand is 200 megawatts.

A Finnish company, WinWind, has proposed building a 25-megawatt wind farm on the Maldives’ Gaaf Alif atoll, while Indian wind turbine maker Suzlon is investigating the feasibility of constructing a 15-megawatt wind farm on the Addu atoll. Japan has provided financial assistance for a project to install a megawatt’s worth of rooftop arrays on schools and government buildings in Male, the country’s capital.

International donors, meanwhile, have promised $30 million for renewable projects. Scotland and the Maldives have signed an agreement to investigate the potential for developing wave and tidal power in the archipelago, according to the president’s office.

To provide electricity when there’s no wind or sun, the Maldives is considering biomass power plants that would run on coconut husks. Outlying islands, however, would probably have to continue burning oil until the price of batteries used to store renewable energy became affordable.

LG, the Korean company, donated the panels for the presidential solar array and the inverters were contributed by the German company Kaco. Sungevity used satellite images and its proprietary software to size and design the solar system at its Oakland, Calif., headquarters, then flew a crew to the Maldives to install it.

“We’re averting about 200 tons of C02 from the system and there’s a 27 percent return on investment,” said Danny Kennedy, Sungevity’s co-founder and a former Greenpeace activist, who traveled to the Maldives for the installation. “President Nasheed is demonstrating this is a wise and affordable investment.”

Or as Nasheed put it, “For us, it is an issue of life or death. We have been living in the middle of the Indian Ocean and have a written history that goes back 1,000 years. We cannot relocate.”

“We have to take direct action,” he continued. “As the president, it’s difficult for me to talk like this. This has to involve a fair amount of direct action on the streets.”

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The campaign against Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global warming law, took in more than a half million dollars in contributions this week. Meanwhile, fundraising by the oil companies backing the measure was so lackluster it prompted a plea for help from the petrochemical industry.

“A defeat for Proposition 23 in California could energize environmental fanatics around the country and in Washington to match California’s destructive policies with their own versions of AB32,” wrote Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, in an email first reported by The New York Times. “We’ve raised about $6 million so far, but unfortunately in California’s expensive media market this is not enough to win the fight against environmental zealots led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seems hell-bent on becoming the real-life Terminator of our industry.”

“I am pleading with each you,” Drevna continued, “for our nation’s best interest and for your company’s own self-interest, please contact me and tell me how much you can contribute to this critical effort as soon as possible. Nov. 2 is drawing near.”

The Texas oil companies backing the initiative made news recently when they secured a $1 million donation from the billionaire Koch brothers, who bankroll various right-wing causes. But the only sizeable donation to the Yes on 23 campaign this week came from Tower Energy Group, a Southern California-based petroleum wholesaler, which contributed $100,000 on Monday. Meanwhile, according to campaign finance records, the anti-Prop 23 forces have been having a pretty good few weeks.

On Monday, Susan Packard Orr, yet another daughter of David Packard, the late co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, contributed $250,000 to the No campaign. She joins her two sisters who have given a total of $201,895 to the effort to defeat Prop 23.

On Wednesday, William Patterson of SPO Partners, a Marin County, Calif., private investment firm, also gave $250,000. The California chapter of the Audubon Society stepped up with a $100,000 donation last week. Earlier in the month, Environment California, a non-profit, made a $100,000 contribution.

Another non-profit, the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, put in $40,000 while a high-profile San Francisco real estate magnate, Douglas Shorenstein, contributed $25,000.

The big Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who vociferously oppose a ballot initiative that could derail the billions of dollars they’ve invested in green technology startups, have largely remained no-shows on the No on 23 donor roll. Though Tom Baruch, founder of CMEA Capital, did give $25,000 on Wednesday, and John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is a notable exception with his $500,000 investment to defeat Prop 23.

If Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists decide to open their checkbooks, game on.

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Photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With the campaign season revving up, even more money is starting to flow into the campaign to defeat Proposition 23.

Prop 23 is the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law. Its opponents had been relying mostly on the largesse of a California coalition of environmental groups and Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and tech elite to finance their No on 23 campaign. But now No forces are tapping out-of-state donors.

On Thursday, they got $250,000 from New York investor Nicolas Berggruen. Berggruen is head of Berggruen Holdings, which has made investments in wind energy projects.

Also last week, Nancy Burnett of Lummi Island, Wash., deposited $100,000 in the anti-Prop 23 coffers. Burnett is a daughter of David Packard, co-founder of Silicon Valley tech giant Hewlett-Packard, and a supporter of Democratic candidates.

And this week, David Bonderman, a Texas investor with TPG Capital, donated $7,500.

Closer to home, Warren Hellman, the wealthy San Francisco investor, banjo player, and blue-grass aficionado, wrote a $75,000 check to the No campaign. The campaign’s supporters are fighting to preserve California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, popularly known as Assembly Bill 32. AB 32 requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and allows the creation of a cap-and-trade market to meet that mandate.

The bulk of the money financing the pro-Prop 23 campaign has come from two Texas-based oil companies, Tesoro and Valero, and other out-of-state fossil fuel interests. The most recent big donation came earlier this month when Valero gave $3 million to the effort.

Both sides expect the campaign spending to peak somewhere north of $100 million by the time Election Day rolls around in November, with huge amounts of cash rolling in when the traditional election season kicks off after Labor Day.

One person watching the Prop 23 battle closely is Lawrence Goldenhersh, chief executive of Enviance, a California firm that sells environmental compliance software and services — including those that track greenhouse gas emissions — to big industrial companies.

“If AB 32 is sustained by the voters of California, you will have the largest plebiscite in the history of the climate change debate cast by voters in the world’s seventh largest economy,” Goldenhersh told me Tuesday. “If AB 32 survives and Jerry Brown gets elected governor I think you’ll have cap-and-trade nationally by 2013.”

Enviance has clients on both sides of the Prop 23 fight — including Valero — and thus is not taking a position on the ballot measure, according to Goldenhersh. Still, he calls the election the “Normandy invasion of climate change.”

“If Prop 23 passes and AB 32 is suspended or killed then I think there will not be a lot of drive and political appetite to take on a piece of grand climate legislation in Congress,” he says. “People will say, ‘if it’s too expensive for California then it’s too expensive for a little state.’ “

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